Growing up, our house always seemed to be the central hub of activity in our neighborhood. On any given day, you’d find a posse of screaming 7 and 8 year olds, running through the yard swinging taped together leftover Christmas wrap holders substituting for light sabers as we acted out our favorite scenes from Star Wars. Or find a gaggle of teenage girls crowded into a small pink bedroom around a portable record player, talking about boys they liked, and dancing and singing to the likes of Donna Summer and KC and the Sunshine Band. Or a herd of teenage boys draped all over the furniture in the living room, cheering for their favourite baseball team on TV (Toronto Blue Jays!) all the while pretending not to notice or care about those teenage girls giggling away just a floor above. And as much as our house was so often full of people, it was also full of stuff. Lots of stuff. My mother, for instance, had a fondness for Blue Mountain Pottery, Royal Albert Blossomtime china, and her own rough-hewn but lovingly handmade bowls and oddities that she spun into creation twice a month at her ceramics class, and you’d find examples of these on table tops and wall shelves and mantles all through the house. My father was a huge sports nut, particularly hockey, and there were many nods on walls and shelves to his favourite team, the Leafs. My oldest brother suffered a rather gripping fascination with all things militaristic, with a growing collection of amry and navy memorabilia to commemorate the same. My other brother was practically a bowling legend at his junior high school, and seemed to arrive home with an even bigger and increasingly more garish trophy once a week to complete for the already limited shelf space. My older sister was the pretty, popular girl at school, and with her came all those trappings of clothes, makeup, and hair products aplenty, enough to overwhelm her bedroom and our tiny shared bathroom. As for my younger sister, her interests were mostly my interests, and she seemed agreeable to whatever toy, movie, game, or TV fad that struck my fancy at the time. And so we’d often alternate from having my 12” GI Joe action figures (not dolls!) rescue all the Tetley tea animals from the war zone that became our dining room table, to running over those evil Barbies gifted to her by a cousin of ours with my Tonka Trucks in the driveway (so um….maybe that part’s a bit disturbing in retrospect), but never remembering to clean up after ourselves once finished our great make-believe adventures. And so with all these varied people about, with all their varied interests , stuff began to accumulate. And the house, with both it’s inhabitants and their belongings, always appeared very full. Although we were each charged with our very own individual chores to aid in the upkeep of the home – my oldest brother was praised as being the world’s greatest vacuum cleaner guy, while my specialty was window washing, mainly because I was so obsessive I wouldn’t walk away ‘til it was spot and streak free! – and as much as our parent’s worked hard to instill the very ideals of good proper housekeeping, things inevitably always ended up feeling a bit cluttered and….well….lived in.
Being raised in a Catholic with a capital C kind of family, it was not uncommon to wake up any given Saturday morning and find the local priest or one of the nuns from our parish sipping tea at our Duncan Fyfe dining room table (GASP! Never just the plain ol’ kitchen table! Do keep in mind this was a holy father or sister gracing us with their presence after all!) And as much as I sometimes dreaded these visits, as I found it stressful to be so careful with what I said or how I might act, let alone to remember to wash my face and wear a clean shirt, I was pleased to find that, on this particular morning, it was Sister Catherine visiting. Sister Catherine always seemed friendly and approachable…downright normal even for a nun… with a grin on her face and a twinkle in her eye that seemed to me like she had some silly joke she was just bursting to share. For that reason, it seemed easy with her to muster up as much interesting small talk as a 9 year old can muster, and after making the Sister smile and laugh throughout, and beam over my latest report card, I was rewarded with a big ol’ bowl of Fruit Loops (no plain ol’ Rice Crispies this morning!) and a prime spot in front of the television for Saturday morning cartoons (a spot on the previous night’s freshly vacuumed carpet no less!) Before too long, I heard our special visitor taking her leave, waving over her shoulder and saying rather cheerily and emphatically “I just so love visiting your house. It always looks so lived in!” Well, since she was already half way out the door with a wave, the sister didn’t hear the sharp intake of my mother’s breath , nor see the shocked, and then crestfallen, look on her face. Her reaction confused me, as I took what the Sister said as a compliment, meaning that clearly this house was always vibrant and full of life, which it surely was….but I was 9, and what do 9 year olds know? Clearly our mother was deeply hurt by the Sister’s passing comment, seeing it as a condemnation of her own housework, cleanliness being next to godliness and all that. And then, with a sudden look of grim determination, she bellowed for my siblings to “get down these stairs and clean up this mess!”, and before I knew it, everyone was running here and there, and I had window spray and rags in hand, scrubbing away at every glass and mirrored surface I could find (although Karate Kid was a few years away, it proved a good chance to practice some martial arts and my “wax on, wax off” moves!) Everyone was tasked with a list of chores to do, but my oldest brother seemed to fare worst…with his deft vacuuming skills, the poor boy was literally strapped to that nozzle, sucking up every piece of lint or cat fur one might find on carpets, under couch cushions, wherever. And so from that one desolate look on my mother’s face, and that slump in her shoulders, I came to understand that clutter was surely the devils’ work, and that everything should have it’s place, and that place should always be NEAT damn it! This had such an impact that when I was later visiting these elderly cousins in Baddeck I’d be forced to visit from time to time, with their plastic covered couches and their propensity to slap coasters under any levitating glass and whisk plates away from table before food was even half eaten – visits I used to loathe due to the pristine condition of the house in all it’s untouched glory , I think to myself in my polished shoes and immaculately pressed white shirt “why, this is perfectly normal…who doesn’t want to live like this when you’re afraid to sit down in case you crease the furniture?? Yup, perfectly normal! Totally sane even! Nothing to see here!”
And so it seemed that with the good Sister’s one comment, that off the cuff remark likely meant in the kindest, best spirited of ways, was about to have a very profound impact on the course of my adult life. An impact, that is, until this one day I met this special guy, and everything suddenly, drastically, irrevocably changed….
To Be Continued 🙂